Four Emotions

Something I’ve picked up recently is how difficult it is to talk about emotions. We define very complex emotions for ourselves, and use them to mask underlying feelings. We’re “stressed”, or “frustrated”, or “excited”, or we “feel like” and follow up with an analogy.


An exercise I’ve done recently cuts to the root of that. It asks people to express feelings, but limits the available emotions to only ones that can be universally understood. Sadness, anger, happiness, and fear are all we’re allowed to use to describe our mental state. Analogies are not emotions, “stressed” isn’t an emotion; we have to revert to those four. The explanation given is that if, say, someone close to you dies, you may have a broad mix of feelings about that, mostly sadness, but the specific way that you’re feeling is unique to you. No one can understand that, but they can understand sadness.

In a way, it removes context from emotion, and I’m continually surprised by how much it isn’t necessary. I don’t need to understand the complexities of office politics or management structures to understand that being passed up for a promotion makes someone angry– I know anger, even if I don’t know the context. It might be a blend of anger and fear– said person is angry about being passed up but afraid to say anything lest they rock the boat too much– I don’t need to understand the politics involved to know the fear. They might even be a little happy to be passed up, because the position wasn’t exactly what they wanted and it means they’re next in line for something they might like better. It can be a very complicated situation, but I can understand the anger, the fear, and the optimistic happiness.

The exercise also forces us to break apart how we feel about things into discrete pieces. I can feel sad and happy about something at the same time, and while I might call that “bittersweet” or “wistful”, I can break it down into simpler terms; bittersweet for me may be a mixture of happiness and sadness, but it could be happiness and anger for someone else. For some people, nostalgia is a blend of happiness and fear– that things have changed and that kind of happiness is lost. Nostalgia might also be happiness and anger– things were good, but they’ve changed and shouldn’t have. Language has endless ways to obscure our true feelings behind elaborate words.

One of the things I’ve caught myself doing since doing the exercise a goodly number of times is mentally reducing my emotions to simplest terms. I find it’s easier for me to understand them, and I’m a lot less conflicted about how I feel about things, because I’m used to forming clear definitions. Simple emotions allow me to feel multiple things at once without getting bogged down, and most things make me feel more than one. I’ve found that it’s easier to express how I feel to other people, and moreover, that I can express myself in such a way that people’s responses make me feel more understood, and thus happy.

One habit I still have is to express my current state in terms of objective fact, leaving the feelings hanging and unexpressed. I’ll state what is happening but not how I feel about it, leaving it up to the listener to infer. I’ll do this when I’m not yet sure how I feel about something, or if I don’t feel strongly about it, or if I’m afraid of being judged if I express how I feel. I’m trying to break myself of this habit, because while it often leads to conversations, it rarely leads to an exchange of feelings, and thus often feels detached or impersonal.

On the other hand, I’ve found that people I would never have expected to understand me can relate when I express myself with just four basic emotions. It felt overly simplistic at first, but I’ve found I’ve been able to communicate a lot more clearly, at least judging by the responses I get, and I find out a lot more about people when I express myself.

We’re heavily socialized to avoid talking about emotions, and tamping down how we feel about things, to the point where we forget that it’s okay to feel things– it’s part of what makes us human. By expressing my own emotions more readily, I’ve found that I can draw out other people’s and allow them the space to express their own emotions, and I always feel closer to that person as a result. I’m very glad that I was in the right frame of mind to be accepting and open to the series of exercises that spawned all of this, because as much as I wish I could share it with everyone I know, I’m aware that not everyone would be as receptive, for any number of reasons.

It’s kind of the other piece of things. It’s okay to feel things, and it’s okay to choose not to share. I just hope that everyone reading this has someone they can share with if they so desire. If not, get in touch with me privately; I’ll talk to you.

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